By Rabbi Andy Gordon, Bolton Street Synagogue, Baltimore, MD
What does it mean to be generous?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary translates generous as “characterized by a noble or kindly spirit; liberal in giving; marked by abundance or ample proportions.”
A person who is seemingly generous is willing to give of him or herself and provide resources for the community, generally through significant donations. That usually means charity.
All faith traditions advocate for their followers to give money in order to support their community and the broader world. My religious tradition, Judaism, not only asks of my community to give voluntarily, we actually require it!
The Hebrew word Tzedakah is often translated as charity, yet it has a profoundly deeper meaning. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word Tzedek meaning “justice.” As Jews, we are required to give money to support causes or organizations that work towards building a more just and peaceful world. We might not always want to give significant donations, but we are required to fulfill this most important commandment.
This requirement to give charitably led to a very interesting debate amongst the ancient rabbis. In the Babylonian Talmud, which was completed around the 6th century of the Common Era, the ancient sages discussed which acts were more important: giving of money or giving of ourselves. The rabbis later decided that deeds of loving kindness (gemilut chasadim) were far superior to charitable giving (tzedakah), for:
- Charity can be accomplished only with money; deeds of loving kindness can be accomplished through personal involvement as well as with money.
- Charity can be given only to the poor; deeds of loving kindness can be done for both poor and rich.
- Charity applies only to the living; deeds of loving kindness apply to both the living and the dead.
I find this discussion quite astute. The rabbis knew that every member of the community is required to give charitable donations; no one is unable to shirk from this commandment. Yet, acts of loving kindness are different. These small actions are always completely voluntary.
You can give your required donation, but still be an inhospitable individual. A person who performs an act of loving kindness does so because of a generosity of spirit. It is always a gift of the heart.
Even more importantly, acts of loving kindness affect a much greater share of the community. Charity can only be given to those who are poor, but every single person regardless of means can give of themselves. Money can only be given to the living, but all of us can provide a proper burial for the dead or help make sure that a loved one’s memory continues.
The rabbis remind us that in every action, no matter how big or how small, we must be generous of the heart. We must remember that charitable giving is not just pulling out the checkbook or swiping the credit card.
A truly generous person reflects upon how his/her donation can change lives. A truly generous person is committed to building connection with others through charity, but also through relationship. Generosity is not about how much you give, but in how your act of giving can build a better world.
Rabbi Andy Gordon serves as spiritual leader of Bolton Street Synagogue, in Baltimore, MD
 Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sukkah 49b